Free Ride? Creating vs. Curating vs. Aggregating

This was a comment I wrote to Maria Popova, curator of the popular Brain Pickings blog / Twitter feed, on her article “Free Ride: Digital Parasites and the Fight for the Business of Culture” (November 16, 2011).   That article reviewed Robert Levine’s “Free Ride:  How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back.”

Maria, I appreciate what you do and often read interesting items pointed to by your Twitter feed.

However, I am having difficulty following how you can sharply distinguish between creators and “aggregators”.  To me, what you do is primarily aggregation — you curate and point me to other content — and it has value.  Barely ever do I read something that you fully “created”, say wrote word for word without referencing or summarizing anything else;  and of course, hardly anything is created ex nihilo like that.

You give Huffington Post’s item about the Victorian map of woman’s heart, which you say was lifted from your article, as an example of “parasite” practices, whereby  “editorial and curatorial merit are being hijacked…not benefitting the original creator or curator in any way.”

So, I compared your piece, HuffPo’s, and the original source, and come to a different conclusion.  Your piece features a map exhibited by the American Antiquarian Society’s current exhibit, “Beauty, Virtue & Vice.”  The AAS is the currently relevant “creator”, by having collected the materials, mounted the show, and put online the map images.   However, your article text doesn’t mention the AAS or the exhibit, merely linking in one place to an AAS web page from which one might possibly infer and navigate to info about the show.

By comparison, HuffPo’s article explicitly credits the exhibition, gives the AAS’s full name and show name, and fully encourages readers to view the show:  “check out the whole exhibit here — it’s worth it”.   You say this was HuffPo “reposting a reworded article,” but as I compare them, the text is entirely different, and it’s not self-evident that they took the item from you.  Presumably a lot of other people saw and passed around references to the exhibition, it’s at least possible they had another source.

I would hardly say that, looking around the internet or at media in general, it’s pervasive practice for people to cite exactly how they first came across sources — this would often be impractical, could cause legal issues, expose working methods, etc.  Few of your Twitter posts, or those of Read Write Web or any other major source, for example, say how the cited item was found.  HuffPo may have found the subject from your blog / Twitter feed, but they obviously went and and looked at it themselves and wrote it up;  didn’t they just find it via you, just as you find things via other sources all the time?

I don’t mean to explain or defend Huffington Post’s practices in general, I just use this as an illustrative case.  My point is there doesn’t seems to be a huge distinction between the “creator” curating you say you do, which is often just a pointer to another source, and the “parasite” aggregation of the HuffPo example you cite.

I’d say it’s theoretically and practically very difficult to clearly distinguish between creating, curating, assembling, and “aggregating.”  Authors assemble, editors create, filmmakers “direct”.  The “assemblage” that I, Twitter, Google Reader, etc. do in pulling together my daily online reading has great cultural value to me.   I see a big continuum of combinatorial activities, a bounty which we can both use and add to;  not the sharply delinated creators/parasites you suggest.  There may be a case for the “parasite” view, but I don’t see that you’ve made it here.

Anyway, thanks for Brainpickings, I’m a supporter.

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